City takes its time producing emails

Published 10:53 am Friday, April 1, 2016

Brookhaven on Thursday provided emails of city officials that were requested by the newspaper as part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to promote dialogue on open government.

The emails were requested March 16, and state law allows any public body up to seven days to provide any requested public documents.

City attorney Joe Fernald verbally requested an additional 10 days to produce the city’s records on March 24 but did not do so in writing as state law requires.

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State law says “the public body must provide a written explanation to the person making the request stating that the record requested will be produced and specifying with particularity why the records cannot be produced within the seven-day period. Unless there is mutual agreement of the parties, in no event shall the date for the public body’s production of the requested records be any later than 14 working days from the receipt by the public body of the original request.”

Fernald delivered his own emails, along with emails from Mayor Joe Cox, City Clerk Mike Jinks, Aldermen Karen Sullivan, Shirley Estes and David Phillips. The emails provided pertained to routine city business.

According to Fernald, Police Chief Bobby Bell, Aldermen Terry Bates, Randy Belcher, Flecher Grice and Mary Wilson do not use emails to conduct municipal business.

When Fernald verbally requested extra time, he said it was not because the city had anything to hide, but he wanted to review emails for legality problems.

“As I told you, your request created a difficult situation since only two of the elected officials had an official email account,” Fernald said in a letter. “The remaining 10 officials use their own private or personal email accounts to transact municipal business. Pursuant to the two AG opinions, the governmental unit is required to conduct a search of the personal computer of the remaining elected officials for any emails they may have sent on their private address. Regardless of the fact that you requested emails from an official email address, the absence of an official email address does not limit the inquiry.

“This is where the time delay occurred,” Fernald said. “I was required to examine all private email records from the remaining individual elected officials to determine the nature of the email and if it pertained to municipal business. The review of the remaining nine email accounts took longer then expected. We went to great pains to determine if the emails were in fact public records.”

Fernald said the city has always been open about providing its records, but it has never been asked to produce email records before. He said he verbally requested an extension and assumed the newspaper had agreed to the extension.

The emails of Lincoln  County Administrator David Fields, Sheriff Steve Rushing and any of the five supervisors that have an official email address were also requested on March 16. Rushing and Fields produced their emails by March 24.